Future watch – Norman Hayden looks at Building Biology

Norman Hayden looks at how Building Biology, an established design methodology for creating healthier environments, is seeing a comeback as architects look to increase user wellbeing.

Creating green buildings, but also being able to accurately assess their environmental properties, is going to be one of the key issues for the construction industry in the future.

Most environmental assessments have concentrated on levels and forms of carbon consumption, and the effect this has on our surroundings. But, increasingly, the focus is on indoor quality of life and health, with assessments including requirements to reduce the quantity of toxins used in construction, and ensure that a sufficient amount of fresh air is supplied to homes.

Buildings constructed today often contain inherent chemical, physiological and biological risks as a result of materials and processes employed by the construction industry in a drive to minimise costs and build times. The UK currently falls behind European and global standards of best practice concerning the use of many materials.

Previously, this has led to what became known as ‘sick building syndrome’ producing chronically ill occupants. But the Building Biology (‘Bau-biologie’) movement goes further than toxin reduction; its science-based research reveals buildings made of natural materials, in addition to being environmentally friendly, boost health and well-being.

What is Building Biology?

Building Biology is the holistic study of the relationships between humans and their man-made environment; the science of creating healthy, life enhancing buildings. The concept began in Germany in the early 1960s as a reaction to the growing numbers of chronically unwell people living in the mass-produced industrialised housing of the post-Second World War years.

This prompted the creation of a set of scientific standards for evaluating indoor environmental quality and 25 principles for building new homes and workplaces. These principles cover factors such as location, noise, emissions, site density, air quality and light.

The 1970s energy crisis saw insulating and sealing homes become a priority. In these tightly-sealed, poorly-vented homes moisture and air quality problems became rampant – and allergies and asthma gained ground.

In the 1980s, homes with lighter timber-framed homes came to the fore. However these were problematic in terms of Building Biology criteria as they contained glues and timber treatments, and air tight barriers used were generally permeable to chemicals. Mitigating this to some degree, mechanical ventilation provided controlled outside air to neutralise potential pollutants and moisture created by the building and its occupants.

In Northern Europe, Building Biology has become synonymous with built environments that are healthy and ecologically sound. Born from its unique sociological and building context, the movement developed a standard for health and ecology.

Much of the wider green movement, in working with conventional materials and methods of construction, has sought to achieve healthier and more energy efficient homes via the introduction of increasingly sophisticated technology. This pointed to a future with sensor-driven equipment controlling temperature, humidity, light and ventilation, creating the optimally efficient ‘machine’ for living.

Building Biology also advocates eliminating toxins from the building process. By contrast it views the home as an organism  that interacts with its natural environment, and regards the natural environment as the gold standard against which indoor environmental quality should be measured.

As part of seeing the building as a fundamental part of how our bodies function, exterior walls are seen as a sort of third skin, with the second being our clothing. As natural organic cottons and wool clothing create a more comfortable ‘biological interface’ than most synthetic fabrics being breathable and anti-static, natural building materials are viewed as the ideal solution within Building Biology for the same reason.

Following the Building Biology concept, wall materials are selected for their capacity to allow for the passage of vapour without deteriorating but this does not mean that additional synthetic vapour barriers will not be needed. In light weight constructions they will be an absolute must. The result is a comfortable interior climate from moderating natural conditions including the removal of outdoor pollutants.

The concept is unique in that it considers a variety of environmental quality parameters. According to followers of Building Biology an ideal home environment should achieves a natural balance of ionisation, reduce the influence of human-caused electromagnetic fields, and avoid building over naturally occurring geopathic (subterranean) disturbances. Heat should be radiant without creating heat monotony, dust, noise or heat stratification, light and colour should be as found in nature, humidity should be balanced with natural heat and cooling provided, to name only some of the factors.

Building Biology principles are enshrined in the SBM 2015 standard which provides measurable targets for a healthy, risk-free living environment and allows clients to specify a certain environment and have it tested before practical completion.

The Green standards context

But there are of course other green building standards and rating systems in the marketplace to help guide, demonstrate, and document efforts to deliver sustainable, high-performance buildings. Among the better known are the BRE’s BREEAM  and the US Green Building Council standard Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), as well as Energy Star, Green Globes, Living Building Challenge, and the new international WELL people-focused standard. They each aim, in different ways, to mitigate the impact of buildings on the natural environment through sustainable design.

With nearly 2.3 million buildings over its 25 year history, BREEAM is the most widely-established global sustainability standard. LEED has continued to grow in prominence and now includes rating systems for existing buildings and entire neighbourhoods. Othe s who have also responded to the growing interest and demand for sustainable design including the Green Building Initiative (GBI), which was created to assist the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) in promoting its Green Building Guidelines for Residential Structures.

Based in the UK, the Building Biology Association is an independent organisation whose purpose is to promote the awareness, understanding, design, construction and use of healthy buildings. And to promote the subject it recently launched an English-speaking IBN Building Biology Consultant course.

Working closely with the association, and one of the leading proponents of Building Biology in the UK, is Gale & Snowden Architects, based in Exeter. Established in 1992 by David Gale and Ian Snowden, the award-winning practice focuses on  “regenerative design based on permaculture principles” and designs for all scales and types of projects. Its multi-disciplinary team provides architecture and mechanical engineering services and includes experts in sustainable, low energy and healthy building design. Projects combine principles of ecology, Building Biology, physics and landscape design principles with elegant, efficient architecture.

The practice’s designs focus on a fabric first and optimal orientation  approach based on Passivhaus principles to first minimise the energy demand of a building, reducing its carbon emissions, before adding renewables where appropriate. The result is low carbon solutions for the commercial, residential, culture and leisure, community and education sectors that respond to a changing climate and tackle fuel poverty at the same time.

Commercial sector projects include the restoration of Hallsannery country mansion near Bideford, Devon, to its former glory, and an outstanding recent education example is the Peter Buckley Learning Centre at RHS Rosemoor. The practice is also developing a series of ecological kit houses for self build or for complete prefabrication.

The practice is just one of many noticeable examples of the industry’s increasing focus on healthy buildings. As this continues to grow, so the focus on Building Biology is likely to increase as clients demand greener, healthier environments.

An online course offers professional certification as a Building Biology Consultant, registered with the IBN Building

Biology Institute in Germany. For more information visit www.buildingbiology.co.uk